Pretoria - Bulls coach Frans Ludeke has brought back his big guns, and reshuffled his pack ahead of what promises to be a bruising Vodacom Super Rugby clash against the Cell C Sharks in Durban on Saturday, according to the supersport.com website.
Ludeke returned Springboks Handré Pollard, Adriaan Strauss, Marcel van der Merwe and his namesake Flip van der Merwe to the starting line-up for the clash, but the biggest surprise was the decision to bench both Lappies Labuschagne and Arno Botha and start young Jacques du Plessis at flank for the big game.
Du Plessis has been playing at lock the entire season, but would have made way for Van der Merwe’s return this week.
However, his physicality, lineout options and workrate were clearly what swung the pendulum in his favour.
Ludeke said the decision to move Du Plessis back to his normal role at flank was because he is currently in good form, and to provide an impact off the bench in the second half by bringing in both Lappies Labuschagne and Arno Botha to give the team a boost later in the game.
Labuschagne was the competition’s leading tackler before he got injured, while Botha has also been a star performer between his injuries.
"Jacques has been playing well and is in form.
"He is more of a seven as well," Ludeke explained.
"The other two loosies are just getting back from injury.
"Arno had a start last weekend but we feel they both will make an impact and make a lot of tackles in that second half.
"We know it will be an 80 minute game.
"It’s great to have Flip back, he gives us some other options and brings something different to the side as well at four.
"We felt like that this was the best combination to start this weekend.”
Bok midfielder Jan Serfontein was not considered for selection, given another week to get over his hip flexor injury, as the man who replaced him, and who shared his birthday on Wednesday this week – Burger Odendaal gets another chance to impress with his play.
"His rehab is going well but we felt that another week would get him to 100% recovery," Ludeke said.
"With Burger playing well at the moment, it is suits us well. Jan could have played this weekend, so it isn’t that he is injured."
The return of Pollard and Strauss, both rested last week thanks to the agreement with SA Rugby, will give the Bulls an extra bit of spark, and they will need it against the Sharks.
All indications are that it will be a bruising battle with neither side keen on losing an encounter that could severely dent their season. Both teams still need to undertake their overseas tour and with the South African conference so tight, every point is vital.
Bulls captain Pierre Spies is keen for his side to do well away from home.
"We will have to show the ability to win away from home consistently if we want to remain in the competition.
"Durban is a tough place to play at and with so much at stake in the SA conference, we really cannot afford to play average rugby.
"This is going to be an epic local derby and we need to front up to it," Spies said.
15. Odwa Ndungane, 14. S'bura Sithole, 13. Waylon Murray, 12. Andre Esterhuizen, 11. Lwazi Mvovo, 10. Fred Zeilinga, 9. Cobus Reinach, 8. Renaldo Bothma, 7. Willem Alberts, 6. Marcell Coetzee, 5. Marco Wentzel (captain), 4. Mouritz Botha, 3. Jannie du Plessis, 2. Franco Marais, 1. Beast Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16. Monde Hadebe, 17. Thomas du Toit, 18. Lourens Adriaanse, 19. Lubabalo Mtyanda, 20. Etienne Oosthuizen, 21. Conrad Hoffmann, 22. Lionel Cronje, 23. SP Marais
15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Francois Hougaard, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Pierre Spies (captain), 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Dean Greyling
Substitutes: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Morne Mellet, 18 Arno Botha, 19 Lappies Labuschagne, 20 Piet van Zyl, 21 Tian Schoeman, 22 Jurgen Visser, 23 Trevor Nyakane